In much of the public mind, Noël Coward is mainly considered to be the consummate sophisticate, a Britty witty wordsmith and wag able to sling lyrics and bon mots along with the best playwrights and songwriters with Cole Porteresque ease. While all this is quite true, Coward’s groundbreaking hit, The Vortex-which he not only wrote but co-starred in as Nicky Lancaster and made him an overnight sensation in 1924 — proves that there was much more to Coward than the ability to render droll repartee and songs. Indeed, he also created superb anti-Nazi plays and movies.
While The Vortex contains more than its fair share of sharp banter, it is also a powerful dramedy about vanity, adultery, repressed homosexuality, substance abuse and more among an upper-class milieu with its hangers-on. Nicky’s (Craig Robert Young) interactions with his emasculated father David (John Mawson) and clashes with his mother Florence (Shannon Holt) may call to mind Eugene O’Neill’s tragedies and James Dean’s tortured relationships with his 1950s onscreen fathers.
Florence is a fading beauty whose obsession with her looks and age overshadows all else in a life full of pretension. This single-minded fixation on eternal youth and attractiveness greatly impacts upon her family and friends. Daniel Jimenez plays Florence’s gigolo Tom Veryan as a bland bloke whose main virtues are his relative youthfulness and generic handsomeness. In a bit of nontraditional casting, Skye LaFontaine (who is apparently part-Black) plays the English “lady” Bunty Mainwaring whom Nicky is courting (perhaps, subconsciously, to be his beard). Cameron Mitchell, Jr. plays the effeminate Paunceforth “Pawnie” Quentin, who favors maroon and kerchiefs. As the savvy Helen Saville, Florence’s best friend, Victoria Hoffman has the unenviable task of being a truth teller amidst this not-so-rarefied realm of gossamer glitter, glitz and artifice.
In Matrix Theatre’s reprise of last spring’s Malibu Playhouse production (with much the same cast), the action-which Coward set during the post-World War I Jazz Age-has been reset to London during the swinging Sixties. The transition works well. England during that period of the Beatles, Cream, Stones, etc., was extremely interesting, and The Vortex‘s themes of promiscuity, drugs, and the breakdown of classes provide a natural background for Coward’s social critique. And this iconic era gives director Gene Franklin Smith, sound designer Joe Calarco and choreographer Anna Safar a legitimate excuse to play snippets of those fab Sixties tunes listeners still love so well.
Scenic designer Erin Walley also captures the mod spirit of the times in acts one and two, although the third and final act is aptly universal and ageless, as its overriding theme can be traced right back to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Smith’s direction of his gifted ensemble is spot on. Young’s depiction of Nicky’s struggle to rise above being just a callow upper-class lad in the role that rightfully made Sir Noël famous is moving to watch. However, during the dénouement his declamation of the title word was hard to hear, so I had to look up Nicky’s line vis-à-vis his mother and her infidelity: “We swirl around in a vortex of beastliness.” Nevertheless, the Matrix’s three-acter is well worth seeing and eminently worthy of its creator.
The Vortex is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through Dec. 14 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles 90048. For info: (323) 960-7735. For tickets: www.plays411.com/vortex.